by Sarah Wash
It’s odd to find "Red River Valley" and "Oh Susannah" in a volume bound for libraries, bookstores, and literary analysis. Nevertheless, archiving American cultural history is important in its own right, and this book offers some unusual glimpses into our country’s playfuland often sordidcollective imagination. From the infrequently sung mocking verses of "Jingle Bells" to the hilarious "Jeff in Petticoats" (Confederate president Jefferson Davis escaped soldiers in his wife's coat) to the disturbing "minstrel tunes" sung by whites in blackface, these folk tunes, many of which are now treated as children's songs, are anything but innocent. Tales of abuse, alcoholism, prisoners, war, starvation and incest provide some context to reality TV and America's enduring profane/sacred split personality.
no. 3 (September-November 2006)
by Stacey Levine
introduction to Listen to the Mockingbird
suggests that American popular music of one hundred years ago was not sunny,
charming, or naïve, as is sometimes assumed. While some songs in this
pocket-size volume are benign or comic, such as "Bought Me a Cat," which is
related to "Old MacDonald's Farm," most describe war, poverty, familial
relations, death, and slavery. The blowsy characters and coarse motives running
through these old tunes form a link to the careening American cultural present
and to our fascination with bad luck and sordid domestic situations.
Though "Clementine" may no longer be
familiar to anyone under thirty-five, its more obscure verses are likely
unknown even to those who can recall its memorable chorus. The song is a
subterranean-sounding tale of a miner who returns from work to "caress" his
daughter Clementine, who is his "favorite nugget." He eventually mourns her
after she falls to her death in the "raging brine." A later variation of the
verses sees the miner forgetting Clementine after kissing his younger daughter.
A curious, similarly themed number from 1892, "After the Ball," describes a man
broken-hearted after discovering his beloved kissing another; years later,
never having married, he finds out that the man was his fiancée's brother. Even
the holiday favorite "Jingle Bells" rings with bizarre malice. Written by James
Pierpont, a New Englander who relocated to the South, the original version contains
two rarely heard verses that imbue the song and its famous chorus with sarcasm.
In one, a man lies on his back in the snow beside his tipped-over sleigh, while
another man glides past, laughing at the accident.
Many popular songs from the nineteenth
century were written for performance groups such as the Christy Minstrels, a
blackface troupe formed in Buffalo, NY, in 1843. Editor Douglas Messerli
includes the original lyrics, in transliterated slave dialect, from "Jim Crack
Corn," "Dixie," "Ring Dem Heavenly Bells," and others, observing in his
introduction and footnotes that, given the era's pervasive racism, even those
with antislavery tendencies were susceptible: Liberal, abolitionist composer
Stephen Foster (as famous in his day as Andrew Lloyd Webber is in ours) wrote
lyrics containing stereotypes and white haughtiness.
The other piece of misery reflected in
these song lyrics is the Civil War. Some army songs from the era reflect
soldiers' misery and uncertainty. Composer George F. Root's "Tramp! Tramp"
Tramp!" refers to dying Union men in the Confederate prison camp in
Andersonville, GA, and in Root's "Just Before the Battle, Mother," a soldier
notes earnestly that, for "The Battle-Cry of Freedom," he might "nobly perish."
Messerli offsets such solemnity with the inclusion of "Jeff in Petticoats," a
romping, broadly mocking number that recounts Confederate president Jefferson
Davis's rumored attempt to flee Richmond (and pursuing Union soldiers) in his
Although the world of riverbanks,
blackface, Indian chiefs' daughters, and North-South split is blurrily distant
across time, this collection of historical lyrics should remind readers that
our current cacophony and chaos, along with our unmanageably disruptive
cultural struggles, have always been with us.